Lack of funds could hinder accessibility of early votingWritten by Caitlin Bowling
Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.
The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.
“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”
The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.
Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.
“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.
Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.
“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”
The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.
“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.
Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.
“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”
The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.
Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.
“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.
States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.
“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.
However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.
“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.
The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.
But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.
The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.
Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.
Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.
“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.
Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.
“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”
The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.
Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.
Going the distance
Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.
Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.
John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.
“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.
Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.
Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.
In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.
Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.
The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”
The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.
The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.
All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible
Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.
Here’s what some counties are doing.
Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.
Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.
Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.
Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.